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Secret Service to review security breakdown at Obama state dinner

WASHINGTON — The Secret Service said Thursday that it is reviewing its security procedures after an uninvited Virginia couple strolled Tuesday into a state dinner at the White House hosted by the president and first lady.

The agency acknowledged that its procedures to ensure a tight bubble of security around the White House and the political leaders under the agency's care were not followed, but officials were not providing details about how the breach happened.

Meanwhile, the couple, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, two polo-playing devotees of Washington's social swirl and online social networks alike, remained silent Thursday about their White House visit.

Asked whether there is any early indication that new procedures should be put in place to secure the White House and protect the president, Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan said the Secret Service believes the procedures are adequate —or would have been had they been followed.

"If adjustments need to be made," they will be, Donovan said, fielding a flood of calls from media organizations on Thanksgiving Day.

Donovan said the Salahis entered with other guests to the dinner hosted for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh through the southeast side of the White House.

Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC Nightly News and a guest at the dinner, saw the Salahis arrive when he was waiting in a line of cars to enter the East Gate of the White House. In interviews broadcast on NBC on Thursday, he said that the couple's vehicle was turned away, adding, "Actually the first ring of Secret Service security had worked."

"After their vehicle was turned away, they hopped out," Williams said. The Salahis apparently then joined a line of dinner guests at an entrance for pedestrians. What happened at checkpoints at that entrance is the focus of the Secret Service investigation.

The investigation will also help determine whether the Salahis might be in some legal jeopardy.

Paul Morrison, a Virginia lawyer who has represented the couple in the past but has not spoken to them since the dinner, said Thursday that they shouldn't need legal help.

"They just went to a party. They didn't do anything wrong," Morrison said. "I know them. I'm unaware of any reason they need representation right now."

Donovan said Obama was never in any danger because the Salahis went through the same security screening for weapons as the 300-plus people actually invited to the dinner.

Ronald Kessler, author of a book on the Secret Service, said in an interview: "While the couple did pass through a magnetometer to detect weapons, they could have assassinated the president or vice president using other means — anthrax, for example. The additional security checks referred to by the Secret Service spokesman screen for such items as radiological contamination but would not detect secreted biological weapons."

The White House has said the Salahis were not seated for the dinner. It was not clear Thursday when they left the White House on Tuesday, and under what circumstances.

Not two hours after the party, Michaele Salahi had on her Facebook page a dozen photos of herself and her husband with Washington's social elite.

"Honored to be at the White House for the state dinner in honor of India with President Obama and our First Lady!" they wrote.

There the couple was, with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty of the District of Columbia, "and his lovely wife," Michelle. There Michaele Salahi was, with three Marines in full-dress attire. And then there she was, her red and gold sari glittering, snaked around a grinning Vice President Joe Biden, her hand resting on his chest, his arm wrapped around her waist. "OMG! SO EXCITING!!!!!! IRISH EYES ARE SMILING TOGETHER!" their Facebook page said. Another photo shows both Salahis, with a smiling White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. It was not clear who took those pictures.

Michaele Salahi has more than 4,000 friends on her Facebook page.

Typically, people who do not have credentials for regular visits to the White house — journalists, officials and others — must have someone at the White House enter their names into a computer system called WAVES. When they approach the Northwest gate, they must present identification. But they are denied entry if their names do not pop up on the WAVES system.

Security is usually somewhat different for big parties, however. Guest IDs are often checked against a printed list of names.

Donovan would not describe the system in place Tuesday night, saying the investigation is ongoing. "I don't want to get into any of it," he said.

Before the dinner Tuesday, the couple were filmed by a camera crew connected with a reality television program, although none of the filming took place on White House grounds, a spokeswoman for the program's network said Thursday.

Bravo Media confirmed late Thursday that Michaele Salahi is being considered as a participant in the upcoming The Real Housewives of D.C. program and was filmed around Washington by Half Yard Productions, the producer of the program.

"Half Yard's cameras were not inside the White House. They filmed the couple preparing for the event," Johanna Fuentes, vice president, communications, for Bravo Media, said in an e-mail. She said the Salahis "informed Half Yard that they were invited, the producers had no reason to believe otherwise."

Fuentes referred further questions to the couple's attorney and publicist.

Whether or not they wind up on the Housewives, the couple have certainly acted as if they were stars. They are scheduled to be on Larry King Live on Monday.

Information from the Associated Press, the New York Times and the Washington Post was used in this report.

Secret Service to review security breakdown at Obama state dinner 11/26/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 10:05am]
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